I need a hero

Article by James Naughtie, 2001

We are programmed to think of our heroic tenors in glowing terms. But as JAMES NAUGHTIE points out, often it is his love interest to whom we should look for real strength

Operatic Heros are not always what they seem.  The swaggering all-conquering lady killer is the figure of audience folklore, laying everything waste before him.  But of course it is nonsense.  As usual with opera, the picture is much more ambiguous and subtle.  What, for example, do we make of Don José?

Early on in Carmen he has to read a letter from his mother advising him on what he should do.  Now I don’t wish to indulge in a discussion stereotypes, but I would suggest that from early on in the opera we sense that underneath the uniform – which, as we know is a slightly moth-eaten one anyway – there beats a heart which is ready for defeat rather than classical heroism.

Indeed, Carmen is an example of a phenomenon in nineteenth-century opera which may be one of its most powerful impulses – the dominance of women.  There is surely no other form of art in which there was an earlier and more profound portrayal of the real relationships that exist between the sexes, beneath the crude pictures that could be used to illustrate a love story or a battle to the death or a story of betrayal and disaster.  I suspect that in the eternal argument about how a form of stagecraft which has depended on so many artificial conventions to produce “reality”, this is part of the answer.

In Carmen, the tragedy that afflicts the central, tantalising hypnotic character is one that involves heroic urges.  Carmen herself, if she were nothing but a temptress with an electric presence, would not give the drama the commitment that is in its core.  Here death can’t be seen as cheap in any way and it is only because her seductions have taken place on such an elevated plane – with such style, with such all-consuming vigour – that the blood in the sawdust at the end has such power.  And it takes nothing away from the opera to say that Don José is one of those men, of whom there are many on the operatic stage, who is the trigger for a violent and passionate drama but who seems to have less of it in his blood than the woman with whom his destiny is entwined.

In this season at Holland Park there is also La Traviata, in which Alfredo is certainly a character who evokes plenty of sympathy and some admiration.  But he could never be accused of displaying the complexity of the tragic depth of Violetta.  There’s a simplicity about his fate; an alluring and unresolved sadness about hers.  Even in operas where the action is controlled – or at least pressed on – by a man of action (as, I suppose, you could just say about the Barber of Seville) that is not where the focus lies.  Like a busy painter’s canvas full of vigorous crowd scenes, where there is always the magnetic little scene to which everything else is mad ego give way, in the great age of opera it is overwhelmingly in the women that we’re more interested.

I suppose there is some of kind of heresy here.  After all, generations of men have taken to the operatic stage convinced that it is with them that the real drama rests.  As the star of a musical might say, they get the girls.  They conquer the enemy or meet their deaths in heroic ways.  So the story is supposed to go.  And of course it has become the caricature of the men who sing the roles.

Such is the lure of the great parts that it seems singers have felt it necessary to perpetuate the heroic image.  Nineteenth century operatic history probably made it inevitable that the great singers would be produced in the image of the great parts as they liked to see them: how else can you explain, for example, someone who could behave as monstrously as say, Chaliapin, probably the greatest Russian singer of them all?

Sir Thomas Beecham preserved a wonderful story of his behaviour at the Drury Lane Theatre just before the First World War.  The old monster was singing in Boris Godunov, in the role with which he was always to be associated, and apart from being the usual menace to every woman within touching distance, he had a wonderful set-to with the chorus.  They had been told that he was donating his fee from one performance to their benefit fund and when it was discovered during an interval that this was not to be the case, the Tsar of all the Russias, in full costume was presented with a chorus which was refusing to go on stage for the coronation scene.  A great row exploded backstage, which led to Chaliapin flattening the singer who spoke for the chorus with one almighty blow to the chin. In panic, the stage door crew summoned a posse of police from Bow Street who arrived to find a full-scale fight in progress, with the star beating off an angry chorus attacking him with every stage prop available.  He eventually went back on stage to sing the rest of the opera carrying two loaded pistols in the folds of his cloak.

Now such hysterical behaviour which matches that of even the most serpentine and stubborn Prima Donna, has always had a walk-on-part in opera – somehow reminding everyone happily that this is a business in which emotion always runs high.  Yet this year’s programme at Holland Park is a reminder that the men are not what they seem.  I suppose it is cheap to place on the shoulders of the heroes of opera the behaviour of the singers who slip on their clothes but the temptation to look at how life believes it is imitating art is quite irresistible.  The thing is, it isn’t true.

Poor old Don José shouldn’t perhaps be used as the whipping boy.  Yet he catches in his travails something of the miserable fate that so often befalls the hero of opera.  Though there are genuinely tragic figures among the men (and not only when Shakespeare has been plundered) Bizet’s opera is carried not by the ardent lover who won’t let go until loves meets death, but by the fickle spirit of Carmen herself.  Her music is the subtle bird-song of the opera, its mating call.  From the first sinuous bars of the seguidilla in Act I, that is the theme which directs the story and the fate of the characters.  For all her shallow qualities and perhaps her lack of understanding of her power, it is that siren song that turns Don José into the man whom we know will never escape the coils.  What is more, we sense that it will be he who is left to take the consequences of everything that has occurred.

In the book from which the libretto was taken, Carmen dies on the day after the fight which Escamilo wins.  Her death is lonely and distant.  Bizet’s music prepares everyone for a different story: the cry goes up from the bullring over the wall and the climactic act of violence occurs.  How could it be different?  Don José is bound from the first bars of Act I in that entanglement which has to work itself out as one.  As Escamillo wins, he must fail.

So much opera reveals the subtlety of these women who command the men of action.  I confess that in frivolous moments I have wondered about some of these men.  Even Don Giovanni with the four hundred and more conquests was cast into the pit as a result of what was a gargantuan failure of understanding.  He is given his tragedy in music…but his own death mask is hardly a tragic one.  Few of these men can put one on with pride, and so often we can see that the genius of the operatic treatment lies in the way that conventional notions of heroic behaviour are revealed for what they are: something much less elevating and rather more familiar.

So in this year’s long nights at Holland Park, in balmy sunsets, when the strutting figures of the heroes emerge from behind the pillar, remember that on the operatic stage they often have a more difficult life than they would have you believe.  Bombastic they must be; fierce lovers and warriors they often are.  But most of the time they have less reason for their arrogance than we may have been led to suppose.  Do they command events?  Rarely.  Do they hold their fate in their own hands?  Hardly ever.  They are the victims who want to appear to be heroes.

Who can’t sympathise with Don José? His infatuation and fever is attractive, if a little sudden and destructive.  He moves on from his mother’s entreaties, which is always a good sign.  He exhibits some bravery as events close in.  But in the end he is not quite the hero that tenors would have us believe, as they catch the flower.  Anyone who still thinks of opera as caught in conventions which render it crude should remember: this is subtle stuff, and as usual when it gets complicated and instinctive, it is the men who are put in their places.  An unruly bird, indeed.